Ep. 235: Big Ideas – “Freeing America’s K–12 Education System” with Clint Bolick and Kate Hardiman

February 4, 2021

Justice Clint Bolick of the Arizona Supreme Court and Kate Hardiman, Rehnquist Fellow at Cooper & Kirk, join us to discuss their latest book, Unshackled: Freeing America’s K–12 Education System.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice. And this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today, I’m honored to be joined by two great guests. First, we have long-time educational choice advocate and legal eagle, Justice Clint Bolick of the Arizona Supreme Court, who’s also a research fellow with the Hoover Institution, and you may know him as co-founder of the Institute for Justice. [inaudible 00:00:32] work for many years at the Goldwater Institute and a variety of other pro school choice outfits in his day, and as the author of one of my favorite books that I give to every newbie in the school choice movement, Voucher Wars, which we’re not talking about today, but I highly recommend that book as well. We are also joined by Kate Hardiman. She’s a J.D candidate at Georgetown Law school and Rehnquist Fellow at Cooper & Kirk, PLLC. They are the authors of a new book titled, Unshackled: Freeing America’s K–12 Education System, which is the subject of today’s conversation. So friends, welcome to the podcast.

Clint Bolick: Great to be with you.

Kate Hardiman: Thank you for having us.

Jason Bedrick: So before we dive into the content of your excellent book, perhaps you could tell listeners a little bit about the genesis of the project.

Clint Bolick: Kate and I were talking, having met at Notre Dame one time and stayed in touch. And we were both rather surprised that no one had written a book on how to fundamentally reform our education system. There are all sorts of wonderful books out there, but none of them directed toward actual systemic reform and especially bottom-up systemic reform, not some big reform ideas such as the many that have failed in recent years, but how would we start an education system today from scratch if we were doing so without any preconceptions, but with all of the amazing technological tools available to us. And so we thought, well, you know what, let’s get to work and write it ourselves.

Jason Bedrick: Well, it really is a joy to read and it’s really comprehensive. You cover a wide variety of topics. So I highly recommend that our listeners read it. Kate, you open the book with a thought experiment, asking readers to imagine they were designing their ideal K-12 education system in America from scratch. Now of course, each person’s ideal system is going to be quite a bit different, but what are the major ways you believe that our existing system differs from the sort of education system that most people might imagine?

Clint Bolick: Yeah. So I think the key word that comes to mind Jason is flexibility. Our current system is ossified, not able to change quickly as we’ve seen so frequently throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. So when we think about designing a system from scratch, we’re really focusing on flexibility and giving parents the most options that we possibly can. So whether they decide to keep their child enrolled in what we call a traditional public school, we have some ideas on how those should change as well, or a charter school, a private school, a homeschool, expanding options to families so that they’re able to choose between and among schools that work best for their children.

Jason Bedrick: Before you dive into the policy, you identify about 10 different principles that you believe an education system should adhere to, starting with the idea that the school system is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Justice Bolick, what do you mean by that?

Clint Bolick: What we mean by that is that schools were designed as the best possible way to educate children, but they were not designed as a jobs program. They were not designed as a public works program. They were designed to educate kids. And if they don’t do that, if they are no longer the best way to do that, then we should worry more about making sure that the job gets done, then that the institution that was started for them is perpetuated at great cost.

Jason Bedrick: Now, I’m not going to go through all of the different principles that you outlined, but one of them is rather controversial. And Kate, that’s the idea that schools should operate like businesses. This gets people’s hackles up. So do you mean they should be for-profit and they’re putting money first and that’s all they care about? What are you mean when you say that they should be operated like businesses?

Kate Hardiman: So, I think the major takeaway is that we rely on businesses to provide the vast majority of goods and services today. And they generally do a good job with that. People who criticize schools operating as businesses fail to realize that most facets of American life are driven by businesses. And I mean, we’re not saying that they need to be exclusive and not serve everyone. That’s definitely not the point or the idea. But I think we should really welcome developments that allow schools to operate more efficiently and giving consumers choice as one thing that we think will drive efficiency and raise quality.

Jason Bedrick: So they should have a wide variety of options that they can choose from and the schools should be responsive to families, sort of the same way that businesses are responsive to consumers and they should hold themselves accountable. So it’s not just about the profit, it’s more about the relationship between the consumer and the business.

Kate Hardiman: And I think Clint has an interesting anecdote about how this has worked in Arizona.

Clint Bolick: Well, in terms of the choices available in Arizona, we began with public school choice. So in Arizona, every public school child has a choice of what school they are going to go to. Even though there are school districts, any child can choose any school anywhere in the state. And roughly half of our students attend schools outside of their assigned boundaries. And what has been the result of that? Well, many of the school districts have decided to offer things that are attractive to people. Imagine that? And that’s what we mean by business principles, where you actually apply to schools or 10 schools that are offering arts programs, gifted programs, English as a second language programs. And what we want to do is not only allow kids to leave the public school system, if that’s what’s best for them, but to allow public schools greater flexibility so that they can respond to the needs of their particular kids.

Jason Bedrick: Well, this is a good segue then for moving from principles to policy. So you’ve got an entire chapter toward an unshackled system, which offers advice to policy makers about how to design an education system that puts those principles into practice. And I’ll just mention a few of the others, we won’t dive into them, but we should recognize that every child is different, that the education policy should be about kids not adults. That funds should be allocated toward students and not schools. That variety should be the spice of education. These are all great ideas, so how do you put these into practice? What does an unshackled system look like?

Kate Hardiman: We started that chapter with this great quote from Milton Friedman who was one of Clint’s early inspirations and also my own when he says, “Not all schooling is education, nor all education schooling. The proper subject of concern is education.” So I think when we’re thinking about an unshackled system, we’re dealing with education itself and recognizing that what we think of as schooling might not necessarily be serving the end of education. So, we talk a lot in subsequent chapters about how money should be transported to schools by students and we call this backpack funding, and that’s a main driver of an unshackled system.

Clint Bolick: And Jason, along with that, one of our key reform proposals and perhaps the most controversial is removing the middleman. We have seen so much of that happening over the last four decades in every area of American life. And in every area where that’s happened, consumers have increased their sovereignty, prices have fallen, the quality of services and goods has improved. Here what that means largely is removing school boards, school districts. Lines that were drawn in some instances over a century ago, and that don’t reflect any kind of modern reality. These districts absorb around 50 cents out of every educational dollar and add very, very little value to the educational project. They tend to be dominated by special interest groups. They tend to contribute to educational inequality. They are extraordinarily bureaucratic and inflexible.

And we think that every state is going to continue to have public schools. It’s in every state constitution. We think that the funding relationship should be directly between the state and the students and that the governance of education should be decentralized to the school level so that the schools would be in charge of hiring and firing basic educational offerings in accord with state regulations. And if we saw that kind of genuine systemic change, we would see a far greater flexibility and an ability of teachers to teach principals to actually run their schools and parents to have influence over their kids’ education.

Jason Bedrick: A part of the unshackling is freeing the educators to provide education in the manner that they think best serves the families and students that they’re trying to educate. You say in that chapter, though, that on the family side, on the parent’s side, that the ideal system would include education savings accounts. Why is that the ideal?

Kate Hardiman: So we hold ESAs out as the ideal because we think they’re really the 21st century model for education. And this is so because they allow the utmost flexibility and personalization. Personalization is such a buzzword in education. I heard it all the time when I was teaching, but ESAs really make that a possibility. We actually lay out some hypotheticals in that chapter that show a parent could choose to homeschool in these two subjects and send their child to the district school for these couple subjects. And then an ESA would actually help facilitate that because they would be able to cover some of the costs for private tutoring or for homeschooling, for any suite of educational services that best suits that child at that time.

Clint Bolick: Well, especially today with the pandemic and parents scrambling for options, and the market providing such options for parents that have the means to obtain them, ESAs really have shown that they’re an essential part of the solution here. And in fact, we think that public schools ought to receive their funding through ESAs as well, so that the money is attracted to the educational product and those who are providing the educational product get to decide how to spend the money. Again, business principles. It’s not privatization, it’s business principles. And so we think that this model is the way that all education should be funded. It’s really the way that education is funded at the higher education level and we have the greatest post-secondary system of education in the world. The K-12 system, we can’t say quite that well about.

Jason Bedrick: So what I’m hearing is that the primary reform has to be around the funding. That the funding is going to families and not directly to institutions, and that changes the focus of power, it changes the incentives that the education providers have, they are now directly accountable to the families as opposed to being accountable to elected politicians and unelected bureaucrats. So Kate, how do you anticipate that this change in incentives is going to change how education providers operate?

Kate Hardiman: So, I think this goes back to what Clint was saying earlier, what he’s seen in Arizona in terms of schools changing their offerings. Hopefully the ideal would be that new schools would open to meet the demand of parents who want a Catholic education or a secular arts based education or a STEM education. And so hopefully we’ll see. And that’s what we say in chapter one about variety being the spice of education. Hopefully there will be new providers who will be able to, and incentivized to open to meet demand from parents and families.

Clint Bolick: And Jason, although I think the premise is right, that how education is funded is the principal driver. I definitely don’t think that it’s sufficient, thus the title, Unshackled. Because if ESAs were in and used for public education, if the public schools are not freed from their bureaucratic controls, they’re simply not going to be able to respond effectively. I was in the Northern Mariana Islands a few decades ago, they were exploring the idea of school vouchers. And one of our slogans at IJ was, “We’ll travel to the ends of the earth for school choice.” And I was at a public school and I asked one of the teachers, “What do you think about vouchers?” And she said, “Oh, we hate vouchers, takes money away.” And I said, “What if money came to the school from the student and stayed here and you would get to decide how to spend that money?” And her eyes lit up. I mean, the idea had never occurred to her. And she looked out at the playground and she said, “We could get some new playground equipment.”
And that I think is so essential, not only to allowing public schools to react effectively, but also for buy-in from so many of the people who’ve been so resistant for so long. We can—through this mechanism—provide far higher salaries to the best teachers. We can provide far greater power to principals and to educators. And there’s an awful lot of principals and educators who would like both of those things to happen and maybe willing to do some of the things necessary to make these changes occur.

Jason Bedrick: And there’s no state that has a completely unshackled education system yet, but you point to a few. Florida, for example, Arizona, each of them have large tax credit scholarship programs, education savings accounts. Florida also has a new voucher program. Arizona has a very large, the largest and most robust charter sector in the country. So what sort of evidence do we have from these existing choice programs regarding new models that have emerged? New types of schools that are doing interesting and innovative things that we might see a whole lot more of if other states were to unshackle their school systems as well?

Clint Bolick: Well, of course, here in Arizona in the charter sector, we have incubated some of the greatest public schools in the country. The BASIS Charter Schools are so successful that they dominate the top 10 list of public high schools in the United States. And indeed, China actually asked BASIS to open a school in China, which is just breathtaking when you think about it. And so certainly that’s an excellent example of the type of innovation that we’re looking for. I would say in terms of the new types of models, Arizona may be the best example because the charter program is so well established and so stable. You can safely invest in the development of a new educational model and know that the rug is not going to be pulled out from under you within a few years.

But we also saw that in New Orleans, which is one of the school districts that we profile in the book. After Hurricane Katrina, the school district was abolished and it was re-set up as an all charter system. It’s probably the closest to the type of model of public education, public schooling that we are advocating right now. And they’re literally a thousand flowers bloom. Some of them died, others of them blossomed. And it’s just been a real wonder to see one of the poorest performing school districts in the entire country, Washington, D.C., very similar in that regard, begin to really flourish and the lie that had been given for so many years, that it was the kid’s fault. Now we see a fairly robust school system there with all sorts of dynamic opportunities.

Jason Bedrick: Now, most books and reports and white papers about education policy focus on what policymakers should do. And you’ve got a lot of that in your book. But you actually have a section that offers advice to philanthropists. So Kate, how influential have philanthropists been in the K-12 education space and how would you recommend that they redirect their giving to move toward an unshackled system?

Kate Hardiman: That’s a great question, Jason. Philanthropy, we think, should be redirected to fund innovative and emerging models. So we look at a number of models that are growing, but could use more funding and more resources to be able to expand. And this is in contrast to what philanthropy has been doing for the majority of the last century, which is pouring money into traditional district public schools and seeing very, very little to no return on investment. That’s what happened in the Newark public schools and we’ve seen that kind of across the country. But it’s interesting because some of the main funders, I mean the Zuckerberg Foundation is one example, they’re starting to shift from funding traditional district public schools to actually funding more innovative models. And in some cases creating these models themselves. And we’re even seeing models bringing up from the private sector and that’s a whole other form of philanthropy. So IBM has now started its own school called P-TECH. And there’s all of these options springing up and they’re just different ways that we could be redirecting philanthropic funds.

Jason Bedrick: Before we close, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask the two of you about the legal terrain, which you discuss in one of the later chapters in your book. As you know, you finish writing the book just one week after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. So in the wake of that decision, what does the legal terrain look like for educational choice going forward?

Clint Bolick: Well, at the national level, it’s never been better. Obviously since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld school vouchers in 2002.

Jason Bedrick: In a little case called Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which I think you’re somewhat familiar with, is that right?

Clint Bolick: Slightly. And by the resounding vote of five to four. But the coast has been clear from a First Amendment perspective and it’s only improved since then. Not only the recent Espinoza case, which held that states can’t discriminate against religious providers when they make public funds available. But we also had the Janus decision that allowed individuals to refuse to pay dues to unions with whom they disagree. All of these are catalysts for school choice programs and the like.

It’s often a different story in the states. States have a tremendous degree of latitude in terms of the rules that they can adopt. The Blaine Amendment because of Espinoza is not quite the 800 pound gorilla that it was. It’s on a COVID diet. And so we’re continuing to see state constitutional provisions that are sometimes told to strike down school choice programs. So that’s one of the reasons why we advocate such a wide array of choices. There are some states where the realm of the possible is much narrower than in other places, and we need reform in those states too. So that’s one of the reasons we went so much broader. But the bottom line is, the legal terrain has never been more favorable for education reform.

Jason Bedrick: So I lied when I said one last question because I’ve got one more. Is this book primarily for policymakers? Is it for philanthropists? Or do you have some other audiences in mind? Because I would say it’s very important for those audiences, but it’s also written really in layman’s terms. So I think it’s understandable to a broader audience. Who did you have in mind when you were writing this?

Kate Hardiman: Yeah, so Jason, we really hope that parents will pick it up above all else. And we tried to write so that it would be comprehensible for parents to be able to understand why is their school district structured the way it is. Why don’t they have more choice? Because during the pandemic, especially, we’ve seen this great demand for understanding among parents and a demand for options. So we’re hoping that this book is attractive to parents more so than in addition to policy folks.

Jason Bedrick: Well, I hope you’re right. I hope you see lots of sales because it’s really a comprehensive take on the issue. Everything is in there including lots of ground that we didn’t cover here today like the myths and facts section that you have. It really is a wonderful book. So again, our guests today have been Justice Clint Bolick and Kate Hardiman. Their book is, Unshackled: Freeing America’s K–12 Education System. Thank you both for joining the podcast.

Clint Bolick: Jason, keep up your great work. Thank you.

Kate Hardiman: Thank you, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the big idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media @edchoice. And don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.